9 Questions: Tim Westergren, Founder Of Pandora

Katie Morell

Friday, July 8th, 2011

Tim WestergreenThanks to Tim Westergren, I’ve been introduced to countless musical artists—many whom I now I love. I was aPandoralate bloomer, only registering a year ago, and since then, I’ve told everyone I know to sign up—to which I usually get the same answer…they’ve been users for years.

Westergren, a former musician and film composer, founded what is now Pandora in 1999 and has grown the company from humble beginnings to a public company (as of June 15) with 90 million registered users in the U.S., and 300 employees. He is a serious celebrity in the world of music and entrepreneurship and last year was ranked amongTIME Magazine’s top 100 most influential people in the world.

I sat down with Westergren to hear his story, his secrets for success and his advice for budding entrepreneurs.

Q: How did the idea for Pandora come about?

A:It started as the Music Genome Project and was born out of my experience of working as a musician and with musicians, trying to make a living and trying to find an audience. As a film composer, I spent time trying to figure out people’s music tastes.

In 1999, I was doing film compositions in the Bay Area and was surrounded by the dot-com boom. There was just an explosion of entrepreneurship around me and an explosion of music online.

The original idea was a hand-built musical database where we would find specific attributes from each song—a musical DNA. From that, we teamed up with people to build an algorithm to map the DNA.

Q: What roadblocks did you hit in the beginning?

A:Well, we started the project in the heyday of the dot-com boom, and then the bubble burst. We spent five years really struggling. In 2005, we reconceived the company and started Pandora.

Q: What was the public reception upon launching the site in 2005?

A:It took off like a rocket ship. We had more than 10,000 signing up every day and had never even advertised the service.

Q: What challenges have you faced along the way?

A:I think one of our biggest challenges was around our financial situation. We pay royalties for the songs we stream and a panel ruled to heighten the cost of streaming. It turned into a big political campaign and we had to lobby in Washington. The ruling was reversed in 2007, but that just about killed us.

Q: What have been your biggest successes?

A:There isn’t a single moment in time that sticks out. We’ve had steady growth and it has been entirely viral; we’ve managed to build an enormous audience largely because people love the product. That has been the most satisfying.

Q: What are your plans for the future of Pandora?

A:We want to make it available to as many places as possible. Cars are an exciting category to us. We are already implemented in some cars, including some Ford models. We want to be in every car—that is our goal.

Q: What are some of the biggest lessons you’ve learned?

A:First, I’ve learned how important it is to surround yourself with great people. It takes a lot of people to get over the hump and it can be very challenging. I didn’t do this on my own. A lot of people have been part of it.

Second, I’ve learned to realize that these kinds of things take time and that you need to establish a life that is sustainable when you are an entrepreneur. A lot of people think they will race through the first few years and find success. They may make choices about their personal and professional life that they can’t sustain.

I think you need not have your eyes too far on the horizon. Enjoy the process.

Third, I’ve learned that it is very important to articulate your mission. Throughout the 11 years of our company, we’ve had a really sharp focus on why we are doing this. Our focus has been on the musical experience for the individual; we help people discover music they will love. That has never changed.

Q: What’s in store for the future of the music industry?

A:I think the music industry has an exciting future where consumers will be able to connect with music in a more personalized way, not just on traditional broadcast outlets.

I also see a rise in a middle class of musicians. The average working band will have the tools and distribution channels and promotional opportunities available to them, and various Internet services will give those artists a chance. I think it is fantastically exciting.

Q: What advice can you give to budding entrepreneurs in the music space?

A:First, I think the area that is fertile for entrepreneurs is the new label. There are lots of artists around that are talented, but don’t have the skills to handle the business side of their careers. There are all these terrific online musical opportunities and services that are available to handle them, but what is missing is that individual that can bridge the two.

If I were going into business now, I would identify a handful of artists and become their manager/label/promoter. As an individual, if you understand the Internet, you can be a potent business without a lot of money.

On the straight business side, I recommend finding something you really love. Pick something you are passionate about. Entrepreneurship is a long, winding road for the most part. You don’t survive if, or thrive if, you are just trying to get a quick hit or get rich. You need to love what you do, work hard at it and have endurance.

About Katie Morell

Katie Morell is a writer and editor based in Chicago. Over the past 10 years, Morell has covered topics ranging from business and politics to travel and social justice. She is a member of the American Society of Journalists and Authors (www.asja.org), and a graduate of Michigan State University's School of Journalism.